But the world of cycling is more complicated and multi-layered than that, and one of the cyclists who plays a big role in the success of every team is the domestic. The role of this cyclist – who can never win no matter how hard he tries – is explored in the Irish film The Racer, which is currently in theaters.
It’s telling that “servant” translates to “servant,” and the difficult sides of the role are what writer Ciaran Cassidy (Jihad Jane) and director Keiron J Walsh (Jump, When Brendan Met Trudy) explore in The Racer. .
The theme of the film came from Cassidy’s love for sports and fascination with the darker sides, like drugs and EPO use. He was also inspired by his memories of 1998, when the Tour de France passed through Ireland.
Walsh said it wasn’t a good time for the Tour at the time, and some thought it would end that year.
“There was a huge drug crisis that happened at that point, the riders went on strike, a lot of them gave up – it was kind of a mess. In an attempt to save sport, they have decided to set up many structures to eradicate drugs. Paul McQuaid invented the “blood passport” for all riders. It looked like it was going to help matters – however, Lance Armstrong won the next seven races of the Tour de France.
Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey in 2013 that he had used performance enhancing drugs for those seven years.
The film is not a commentary on what cycling is today, but looking at the time through a fictional story, it shows cyclists using EPO in hotel rooms in preparation for big races . The fixation on winning and performance enhancing drugs weighs on the main character, the Belgian Dominique Chabol (played by Louis Talpe), a servant. It is his journey that the film follows.
Walsh describes Chabol as “an outsider – you support him but he’s drugged right down to the eyeballs.” As a servant he can never achieve fame.
“I think it’s changed a bit now – I think people are realizing [domestiques] are an essential part of how cycling works, but not so much back then, ”said Walsh. “So it’s fascinating, the length of these guys to compete, the lengths of this servant. The drugs he took, the shit he took from his charge, from his manager, from everyone around him. He put up with all this bullshit but still couldn’t win.
Paul McQuaid was a technical advisor on the film, and Cassidy and Walsh spoke to various people about their experiences on the tour.
“There were stories of guys in cheap hotels jogging the hallways in the middle of the night,” Walsh says. “People could hear bikes on rollers creaking in the rooms in the middle of the night.”
Everyone is very afraid to talk about using drugs because if you express an opinion about taking drugs and the results of taking drugs and how it happens… you are involved. There is an omerta in the world of cycling.
Walsh notes that while cycling is considered a “glamorous, sexy and cool sport” on the outside, the pre-Celtic Ireland of the tiger it descended on was anything but.
“The government resurfaced the roads for the tour,” he said. “They didn’t want to tar them for the people who lived in the country, they paved them for the Tour de France.
The film was shot in 28 days and involved filming racing footage in Ireland (interiors were shot in Luxembourg as the film is a co-production with the country).
“We had an extremely tight budget and schedule to shoot,” Walsh said. ” [The Tour] was a huge monster and we had to recreate this monster. The races required extras and people who looked like cyclists on bicycles.
It also required a cast that could ride a bike – and they won gold with Louis Talpe, who is a fanatic cyclist himself.
The actors took part in a 10-day bootcamp, where they learned to ride together as a team.
The races involved “a tremendous amount of storyboarding” and pre-viewing of stunts and crashes – although one crash was a real one that led to fractures for some extras (they agreed it should be used in the movie. ).
But it wasn’t just the race that was difficult to pull off. “When I look back and think about it, the scene in the hotel room where they are doing the blood transfusion [was very hard]Walsh recalled.
“It was a real hotel room, there was a heat wave outside, it was daytime but it felt like night. There were probably 25 people in this room and there was probably more sweat expelled in this room than when they were driving.
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Up close and personal
When filming the racing footage, they used a camera at the end of a balanced pole, which they could tip in and out of the pack of cyclists.
They also had cameras on the bikes and drones in the air for aerial photography. “I really wanted it to be close and personal. I wanted you to feel like you were in the middle of the pack when this was happening, ”Walsh said.
While the Tour de France started at O’Connell St in 1998, this area is now so different that they filmed the section in Merrion Square.
The biggest name in the film is Scottish actor Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), who plays team leader Sonny. “I wrote to him saying that I wrote this part for a Glaswegian and I really like what you do,” Walsh said. “He loves Ireland a lot and does Irish projects. He was excited to do it – he liked the idea of playing the role. Sonny is a conflicting character, you like him a bit but he’s as corrupt as the rest, maybe more tainted than he has been in the organization for longer.
The film isn’t necessarily meant to shine a light on performance enhancing drug abuse, but it will be eye-opening for many viewers nonetheless. One of the characters helps represent the audience’s point of view, Walsh said.
“I know it sounds like a male movie, but for me the eyes and ears of the viewer are Dr. Lynn Brennan [Tara Lee], who is an innocent who is brought into this turmoil full of enthusiasm and optimism towards him, then realizes and sees dirty reality. I think she’s holding the audience’s hand and showing them this stuff without lecturing them.
The film was scheduled to screen at the prestigious SXSW Film Festival in the United States earlier this year, but Covid-19 put a stop to that.
“The worst part is that this movie got a real kick out of Covid,” Walsh admitted. “It was sold and released in America in September when a lot of theaters were closed. And that was pushed back here because the cinemas were closed here. He hopes audiences will still be tempted to watch an independent Irish film like The Racer now that theaters have reopened.
Next up for Walsh is a film adaptation of Ciaran McMenamin’s novel Skintown, set in Northern Ireland. This film is to be funded and Walsh is hoping that with the Covid-19 vaccine it won’t be long before he can film his scenes involving clubs and pubs.
“It’s hard enough to make a movie normally without this other stuff,” Walsh said. But like all filmmakers, he enjoys it too much to do anything else.
The Racer is now in theaters.